The ‘Withouts’ of Kuwait

September 17, 2013

The ‘Withouts’ of Kuwait

After 50 years of silence, Kuwait’s Bidun people are shouting out for their right to become citizens.

 “I can’t get a birth, marriage or divorce certificate, I’m not allowed to work in the public sector or to own property, and I’m not allowed a university education.” Nawaf al-Badr, 27, angrily sums up what it means to be a Bidun person in Kuwait.

The word comes from the Arabic bidūn jinsiyya, meaning “without nationality”. The Bidun people are quite literally Kuwait’s “withouts” - lacking access to basic services in one of the richest per capita countries in the world. It’s almost as if they don’t exist.

Nawaf is stateless, even though his family has lived in Kuwait for three generations. We met him during a visit to research human rights violations in Kuwait. He is a member of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights, and an international member of Amnesty International.

The Bidun’s voices have recently grown louder. Fed up with being trapped in poverty, and inspired by the “Arab Spring”, they’ve staged mass protests since February 2011. Thousands of men and women are demanding to become Kuwaiti citizens. They want to be included in the only society they know, and that has been theirs for so long.

Government security forces have cracked down on their demonstrations and arrested people. ‘Abdullah ‘Atallah Daham, aged 25, told us he was beaten and suspended in a stress position after a protest last year. He was held in Kuwait Central Prison for 75 days before being released on bail in March along with 32 others. Their trial, on charges including participating in an “illegal gathering”, is ongoing.

Bandar al-Fadhli, aged 30, told me he’d been arrested six times. He was beaten and repeatedly kicked on one occasion, and told to soil his clothes when he asked to go to the toilet. The Kuwaiti authorities clearly wanted to make an example of these men, and have yet to investiagte their allegations of torture.

The story of the “Withouts” has many twists and turns. Many Bidun are descended from nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed freely across the borders of the Gulf countries. Their ancestors didn’t apply for nationality around the time Kuwait gained independence from Britain, in 1961. Some were illiterate, or didn’t understand the concept of citizenship. Others refused to give up their centuries-old way of life to belong to any one country.

In the 1980s, the Bidun were blamed for a series of terrorist attacks and shut out of government schools, denied free health care, and barred from certain government jobs. They were branded “illegal residents”, with government officials claiming that most of them were nationals of neighbouring countries, who had destroyed their documents to claim the benefits of being Kuwaitis.

When Kuwait was liberated after Iraq’s 1991 invasion, many Bidun were suspected of having collaborated with the enemy. They lost their jobs in the army and police forces, and in the public sector. Many ended up living in poverty in shanty towns on the fringes of society.

For the “Withouts”, Kuwaiti nationality is the key to a better life: to free education and health care, and job opportunities. Bushayer, a young Bidun woman, tearfully told us she’d given up hope of getting a higher education. She’d been admitted to university and saved money for the high fees, but then her state identity documents expired. Now, her life was on hold, because she didn’t know when − or if − the government would renew them.

All Bidun have to carry ID to access basic things like a driving licence, credit, health checks or schooling. But their ID is temporary, and when it expires after two years, there’s no guarantee it will be renewed. Many people who apply for a renewal have been put under a vaguely defined “security block” without explanation. Many say the institution in charge, the Central System for the Remedy of the Situation of Illegal Residents, just stifles their aspirations instead of helping to solve their problems.

Bidun women feel the discrimination intensely. Families that can’t afford to send all their children to school choose to educate their sons, while their daughters take turns every other year. Stuck at home, with little or no education, these girls don’t have many job prospects. Marrying a rich man is their only other way to escape poverty and avoid becoming a burden. Bushayer and her friend, Nadia, told us that some women now choose not to marry or have children, simply to avoid repeating this cycle of despair.

“Our houses are small and the girls often end up sleeping on the kitchen floor”, Nadia added. “We don’t really express our anger at the situation. We’ve learned to keep our expectations low and to have no aspirations. They tell us to be happy with what we have.” She and Bushayer feel that they, as women, can’t participate in demonstrations. “But through Twitter, after 50 years of silence, we can shout now,” Nadia said.

So far, Kuwait’s leaders have turned a deaf ear to the Bidun’s calls for justice. There are over 100,000 Bidun in Kuwait, but the government says only 34,000 of them have any hope of getting citizenship.

Meanwhile, the bar for those who apply is being raised higher and higher. Families have to prove that they were part of Kuwait’s 1965 census, that they’ve lived in the country continuously, or that their relatives have done military or government service. Ultimately, the decision often seems to boil down to people’s personal influence and connections.

For half a century, the Bidun have been trapped in limbo. Their only way out is if the authorities find the political will to solve their situation for good. They could do so by making the citizenship criteria much simpler, and fair, and protecting all the Bidun’s human rights without  discrimination – in particular their rights to health, education and work. And they should allow people like Nawaf, Bushayer and Nadia to challenge their statelessness in court, instead of facing random rejection by a faceless institution for unknown reasons.

Kuwait has both the legal experts and the human rights activists needed to stop the Bidun going without any longer. They cannot wait another 50 years, and their calls for change are growing louder.